by Larry Caillouet
Several decades ago Judy Collins had a hit song in which she sang “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down.” Flying in an airplane gives you that experience to see those fluffy white clouds beneath you. There is a rock outcropping less than a half-mile from St. Thomas called Cow and Calf. It lies very close to the passageway at the east end of St. Thomas, so I’ve wondered many times as we have sailed past it while carefully avoiding it, “Why don’t they just blast the thing and eliminate the navigation hazard?” That thought reflected not only my selfish concern for eliminating anything that might cause me a problem, but also my limited point of view—I had seen it from only one side, the top. I heard recently that it is a very nice dive site, so I made plans with my friend Doug to dive the Cow and Calf.
Our adventure didn’t start out so well. The sea was rough and we had a difficult time getting on one of the two mooring balls near the Cow. Diana is skilled and persistent at hooking mooring balls and securing the boat to them, but the seas were quite rough and the bow of the boat was rising and falling dramatically as waves rolled under us from the open ocean. Finally we succeeded and could get geared up. Escapade was not designed as a dive boat so it has none of the standard dive boat racks for holding heavy dive tanks or a purpose-designed seating area to suit up. While we were figuring out how to put on our gear and get into the water, we came to the conclusion that the other mooring ball was in calmer water, so we released the one we had already secured to, and started the process over. Diana managed to pull the heavy mooring pendant up and tie Escapade to it. Now we could dive in. We opened the gate in the starboard lifeline and took a giant step into the ocean. We snorkeled against the current to the rocks to save air in our tanks, so both of us were water logged and breathing hard by the time we reached the Cow. But then we entered an entirely different world. No longer on the surface being bashed about as land creatures, we had become water creatures. We were weightless! We could breathe under water just like the fishes! We could see every rock and fish clearly. We could move our fins a little and go forward. We could go up, or we could go down. Or we could just hover in one place with no effort. This transformation is the great joy of SCUBA diving, not just the things you can see under the water.
Then we saw the rocks that formed the base of the Cow. There were pinnacles to swim around, arches to swim through, pits to swim over, and cracks in the rock to squeeze through. Many kinds of corals and fans grew on the rocks, and many kinds of fish huddled in the recesses or under the ledges. Some swam by us not allowing our presence to interfere with their daily business. The dive was shallow, mostly 10 to 40 feet, so sunlight illuminated reds, yellows, oranges, and purples. And because it was shallow we had enough air to play among the rocks, fans, corals, and fish for about an hour before coming up. After seeing the Cow and her Calves from both sides now, I would be aghast at any serious proposal to blast these out of the water.
After returning Doug to Cowpet Bay, we sailed to Caneel Bay on St. John. Still anchored between St. John and Mingo Cay was “A”, the massive Russian yacht. It was definitely the 800-pound gorilla of the sailing world at a cost of almost $1,000,000 per foot. I didn’t see its owner, but I wondered what he was doing. And I wondered if he was having more fun than the young people we saw yesterday racing their pocket-change dinghies at Christmas Cove. I think I’ve seen sailing from both sides now.
I’ve also looked at both sides of Escapade. I usually see the top side, but the hull cleaning wasn’t finished and I had a tank of air I could use to see the bottom side with a scraper in my hand. With an 8-inch drywall knife I dove under the boat and scraped away barnacles, slime, and various little feathery things. With my Scuba gear I could get all the way to the bottom of the keel and I could stay down long enough to make a big difference. This sounds like work, and it was, but it was also great fun to see the current taking the clouds of crud away as fast as I could scrape it off. Schools of silver swallow tail fish came by periodically to inspect my work. I wonder why fish couldn’t be trained to eat the stuff that grows on boat bottoms? It doesn’t seem to be much different from what they eat off rocks and coral.
Since 1996 when we first sailed in the Virgin Islands, we have been there 22 times. From all those trips we have come to know the north side of St. John very well. Cruz Bay is the only real town and the place where you can clear in with Customs & Immigration. Caneel Bay is the home of Laurence Rockefeller’s Caneel Bay Resort. It is so posh it doesn’t even have its name on the entrance, just a large “C”. If you drive by and don’t know what the “C” stands for, you don’t belong there. Trunk Bay is a tourist favorite for its underwater snorkeling trail. Cinnamon Bay is the place where Kenny Chesney began writing songs about his love of the islands. It’s also the location of greatest concentration of multi-million dollar homes outside of Beverly Hills. Francis & Maho Bays are the calmest anchorages in the Virgins protected on three sides by St. John, Mary Point, and Whistling Cay. And Waterlemon Cay is really WaterLEMON, not watermelon as some charts say. It is named for the waterlemon tree, not the watermelon vine. All these bays have wonderful beaches, wonderful clear waters for snorkeling, and easy access. Why would you want to go anywhere else? Because St. John has another side also—the south shore. In all our visits to St. John, we had never bothered to sail around to the south shore, and we thought it was high time that we did.
We left Caneel Bay and sailed around the west end of St. John, past Cruz Bay, Chocolate Hole, Fish Bay, and Rendezvous Bay. They were pretty bays, but they had too many boats in them already. Then we came to Reef Bay. Our charts showed reefs lining both side of the bay, but a snug anchorage back against the shore between the two reefs. It was empty as we approached, and we were thrilled to think of having this pretty bay all to ourselves. I watched the chartplotter carefully as we motored back farther and farther into the bay to make sure we avoided the reefs that were getting closer on both sides. Suddenly Diana yelled “3 feet! 3 feet!” meaning the bay had shallowed dramatically and we had only 3 feet of water under our keel. Knowing that the reef-free water would only get shallower and narrower, I threw the motor into reverse and we quickly changed our minds about staying in Reef Bay.
The next stop was Little Lameshure Bay. This bay is at the foot of the trail that leads to the famous pre-Columbian petroglyphs which have become the symbol of St. John. It had only one boat moored in it when we arrived and they left soon after they saw the neighborhood going down. So we realized our desire for a completely private bay. This one had snorkel sites, a long beach, the ruins of a rum plantation and factory, and clear water with turtles that surfaced for air within a few feet of Escapade. Zippety-doo-dah!
After walking the beach and exploring the ruins, we were dinghying back to the boat when I heard a splash and saw the waterproof camera that had been in my swimsuit pocket sinking through the water. We quickly took a fix on our location, not with GPS, since we didn’t have one in the dinghy with us, but by old fashioned dead reckoning. The splash occurred on a line between the orange Jeep on the beach and the mooring ball closest to us and at the intersection with a perpendicular from a large rock visible above the water. We hurried back to Escapade to get my snorkel mask and fins. It was getting late in the afternoon and daylight was fading, so there was no time to waste. We returned to the spot and I jumped in and found my camera. I dove down and retrieved it to complete the day’s fine adventures.
The next day we moved to Great Lameshure Bay which has even better snorkel sites. The rocky coastline continues beneath the water to form a virtual playground for snorkelers. We could swim through narrow channels in the rocks or circle around pinnacles like the white hat cowboys chasing the black hats around the same Sedona rock in the old TV westerns. Unfortunately I couldn’t take any photos of this because, as I found out, “waterproof” is a relative term and the waterproof camera I rescued the day before wasn’t relative enough.
A day and night in Salt Pond Bay completed our “circumnavigation” of St. John. We’ve looked at St. John from both sides now, from north and south, and still somehow, with wonderful memories to recall–I still don’t think we’ve seen it all.